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29
Mar

The Pont au Change and its Sounds

MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me to a bridge right in the heart of Paris the other day, the Pont au Change.

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The Pont au Change connects the Île de la Cité, one of the two natural islands in the Seine (the other being the Île Saint-Louis), to the Right Bank.

When Julius Caesar arrived in 52 BC, the island we now know as the Île de la Cité was a Gallic settlement, home to the Parisii tribe. A low-lying area subject to flooding, the island was quite an inhospitable place but it did offer a convenient place to cross the Seine and a refuge in times of invasion. Although they set up camp there, the Romans didn’t like the island much and they began to develop their more permanent settlement, Lutetia, in the healthier air on the slopes above the Left Bank of the river.

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The Pont au Change from the Quai de Gesvres

It is thought that a wooden bridge crossing La Seine at or somewhere near today’s Pont au Change existed before the Romans arrived. A stone bridge was built in the 9th century at around the time of the Viking invasion and there have been several others since.  Known until the late 13th century as the Grand Pont, this bridge was a major medieval artery connecting the Île de la Cité to the developing Right bank of the Seine. The Grand Pont may have been important but it was very inefficient. Like the narrow, winding streets surrounding it the bridge was perennially over-crowded making it difficult to transport goods through the city – not to mention the high risk of accidents from the traffic. In 1131 Louis VI’s son and heir was killed when a runaway pig caused him to be thrown from his horse.

By the end of the 13th century a large number of Italian money-changers, mainly natives of Lombardy, had established themselves in Paris. At the time when the King and the lords of his court sold prebendaries, bishoprics and benefices by auction the Lombards lent money at a high rate of interest and made immense fortunes. In 1296 a new Grand Pont was built and by Royal decree these money-changers were obliged to conduct their business out in the open on this new bridge and so it became known as the Pont aux Changeurs or Pont au Change (Exchange Bridge).

In 1621 this bridge was completely destroyed by fire. The money-changers asked the King for permission to rebuild the bridge at their own expense, provided that they could erect houses on it and this was approved by Royal edict in May 1639. The new bridge, built between 1639 and 1647, comprised seven stone arches and at 32 metres wide it became the widest bridge in the city at the time.

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View of the Ancient Pont au Change from an engraving of the ‘Topography of Paris’

Image via http://www.myartprints.co.uk

In the mid-19th century the Pont au Change came under the scrutiny of Baron Haussmann and his urban redevelopment of Paris. To fit with Haussmann’s plans, the bridge needed to be realigned and so in 1858 work began on a new bridge.

Designed by the French engineers, Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie and Paul Vaudrey, the new Pont au Change was opened on 15th August 1860 and it’s the bridge we see today.

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The bridge comprises three elliptical arches, each with a 31 metres span, it’s 103 metres long and 30 metres wide with an 18 metre roadway and two pavements each 6 metres wide.

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Pont au Change from upstream with the Conciergerie on the left and Place du Châtelet on the right

The Pont au Change connects the Île de la Cité from the Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie on the Left Bank to the Place du Châtelet on the Right Bank. The Voie Georges Pompidou, a two-lane road, runs under the arch closest to the Right Bank. For most of the year this road carries a seemingly endless stream of traffic but for part of July and August each year traffic is forbidden, tons of sand are brought in and this road becomes part of the popular Paris-Plages, the seaside in Paris.

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Pont au Change from the Voie Georges Pompidou

My Paris Bridges project is not only about tracing the history of all the thirty-seven bridges that cross La Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about trying to identify and to capture the characteristic sounds of each bridge.  And identifying and then capturing these characteristic sounds is not as easy as it might seem, it involves a lot of time, legwork and endless patience.

All the bridges included in my Paris Bridges project have two things in common, they all cross La Seine and they are all within the Paris city limits. You might therefore conclude that their characteristic sounds are also likely to have things in common – the sound of water, the sound of river traffic and the sound of endless vehicular traffic.  And of course, this is true – at least up to a point. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sounds of the water and the river and vehicular traffic will be the same at each bridge – at least not if you’re an acute listener. And what about the other sounds, are there any sounds that are unique to any particular bridge?

Previously, I’ve published posts about the Pont National and the Pont de Bercy both of which have unique sounds, trams running over the former and the Métro running over the viaduct on the latter – and the Pont au Change too has its own unique sound.

But before we come to that unique sound, it can’t be denied that both the water and the traffic are integral parts of the sound tapestry of the Pont au Change.

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Under Pont au Change on the Voie Georges Pompidou with the Pont Neuf beyond

I went down to the Voie Georges Pompidou to explore the sounds under the bridge. I stood under the arch close to the road facing into the bridge with the traffic passing me from right to left.

Pont au Change – Under the bridge:

Listening to sound is a very subjective thing. Whether or not you find these sounds of the traffic passing under the bridge interesting or maybe even enjoyable is a matter of personal taste, but in my opinion at least, these sounds have a value. They may be just the sounds of passing traffic but they are a documentary record of the sounds in this place on a particular day in 2014 and they are some of the characteristic sounds associated with the Pont au Change. Personally, I find that these sounds have a rhythm to them that becomes absorbing with repeated listening.

Interestingly, the traffic passing along this road sounds completely different when listened to from the Quai de Gesvres above.

And what about the other characteristic sounds we might expect to find at a Paris bridge – the sounds of water perhaps?

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Pont au Change from the Quai de la Corse 

Recording the sounds of the water from the Voie Georges Pompidou would have been a thankless task not only because it would be perilous in the extreme but also because the sound of the passing traffic is all consuming. There seemed to be better prospects though on the opposite side of the river.

From the Quai de la Course a set of stone steps leads down to and then below the water. Looking at the Pont au Change from here on this very dull and overcast day reminded me that in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, police Inspector Javert finds himself unable to reconcile his duty to surrender Jean Valjean to the authorities with the fact that Valjean saved his life. Javert comes to the Pont au Change and throws himself into the Seine.

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With no wish to throw myself into the Seine I ventured down the steps and began to record.

Pont au Change – Water at Quai de la Corse:

Echoes of Inspector Javert though were present in the shape of the police sirens in the distance and then the sound of a rubber dinghy containing three police frogmen armed to the teeth zooming by. It seems that I had chosen to visit the Pont au Change on the same day that the President of China had chosen to visit Paris so presumably the frogmen were part of the elaborate security apparatus.

While the sound of the passing dinghy is not a characteristic sound of the Pont au Change, it just happened to be there at this time on this day, the sound of the water certainly is.

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider what I mean by ‘characteristic’ sounds.

Most of the sound work I do in Paris is concerned with the concept of ‘sound’ and ‘place’ – the relationship between the two and particularly how sound can help to define a place.

In the context of my ‘Paris Bridges’ project, I’m seeking to find the characteristic sounds that define each bridge. I’ve already said that the sound of water and of river and vehicular traffic are pretty much common to all the bridges within the Paris city limits but that doesn’t mean that these sounds are all the same. The sounds of the Bateaux Mouches passing under the Pont Saint-Michel are very different to the sounds of the same boat passing under the Pont des Arts for example. The sounds of the water at the foot of the steps at the Pont au Change are different from the sounds of the water at the Pont Neuf, the next downstream bridge, and the sounds of vehicular traffic passing under the Pont au Change are very different to the sounds of the traffic passing over it as we shall see in a moment.

I contend that the sounds of water and of river and vehicular traffic are ‘characteristic’ sounds of the Paris bridges and, if listened to carefully enough, the very subtle differences can help to define each bridge. My real challenge though is to find the characteristic sounds for each bridge that don’t require an explanation or expert listening, the sounds that simply shout out, “I’m here, I’m unique, I AM the sound of this bridge!” I’ve already mentioned two examples, the trams running over the Pont National and the Métro running over the viaduct on the Pont de Bercy but for some other Paris bridges such obvious defining sounds may be harder to find.

What makes these sounds ‘characteristic’ though, whether they are very subtle or very obvious, is that they are permanent. They are not simply passing sounds like the police frogmen that might be there one day and not the next; they are always there – at least until some major reconstruction takes place that removes them.

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The Pont au Change and the Conciergerie

And so, back to the Pont au Change.

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The Pont au Change looking downstream

Between the pavements on either side of the Pont au Change is a roadway layered with pavé. Clearly, the sound texture of the traffic passing over this pavé surface on the bridge is going to be different from the sound of the traffic passing over the tarmac road under the bridge.

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Pont au Change looking towards Place du Châtelet

But as well as the rather subtle sounds of the traffic over the pavé, is there a more obvious sound at the Pont au Change, a sound that shouts out and demands to be heard?

In my Paris Soundscapes Archive I have some sounds of Paris that last for over an hour and some that last only for seconds. Often, the shorter sounds can say as much as the longer ones. In the midst of all the sounds on the Pont au Change there is a sound that really defines this bridge. When I was at the bridge this sound only lasted for about three-seconds (sometimes it’s shorter and sometimes it’s longer) but while the sounds of the passing traffic and the people are transient, this sound is permanent and it has been heard here for hundreds of years. It’s the sound of l’Horloge du palais de la Cité, the oldest public clock in Paris.

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Pont au Change – l’Horloge du palais de la Cité

Pont au Change – On the bridge:

The clock is to be found in the Northeast corner of the Palais de Justice at the Left Bank end of the Pont au Change and its chimes can be heard across the bridge. It dates from 1370 and it was built and installed by at the behest of Jean le Bon (John the Good), King of France from 1350 until his death in 1364.

At this part of the Palais de Justice is la Conciergerie, both a former Royal Palace and later, a notorious prison. As chance would have it, I recorded the clock chiming at three o’clock in the afternoon. At exactly the same time on 17th July 1793 Charlotte Corday was sentenced inside the Conciergerie to be executed by guillotine for the assassination of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. While she was being sentenced this same clock would have been chiming outside as it would at eight o’clock the same evening when she was beheaded.

The clock has been restored several times throughout its lifetime, the latest restoration being in 2012, and today it looks and sounds probably better than it has ever done.

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Pont au Change looking upstream towards the Pont Notre Dame

My exploration of the Pont au Change has taken me from the home of the ancient Parisii tribe on the swampland of an island in the middle of La Seine, to a Roman and then a Viking invasion, to the Lombardy money-changers, to Jean le Bon’s public clock, to the French Revolution and to Baron Haussmann’s urban development of Paris. And let’s not forget police Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables … and three armed police frogmen.

I’ve also tracked down and captured the contemporary sounds of the Pont au Change – the sounds that I believe are the characteristic sounds of this bridge.

And yet, one mystery remains.

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Halfway down the steps leading to the river from the Quai de la Corse are the remains of a window and a shuttered doorway in the wall. Even though there are no houses anywhere on this side of the Quai de la Corse the number 21 appears above the door.

What is this place and what stories lie within?

I can’t help feeling that police Inspector Javert is keeping a beady eye on it from his watery grave.

23
Mar

Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk

I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.

The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.

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Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long.  It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.

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I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.

This is what I saw and heard …

Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:

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It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.

17
Mar

Sounds of the Parisian Spring

WE’VE HAD SOME beautiful sunshine in Paris over the last week or so  – and when the sun shines people head to the parks.

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Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg to catch my bus home. The sun was shining and this most popular of Parisian parks was simply awash with people – perhaps more people I think than I’ve seen there before.

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All these people were doing what people do in parks – walking, jogging, reading, having picnics, meeting friends or simply sitting and doing nothing in particular.

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Since I had time on my hands I decided to stop and record some of the sounds in the park, something I’ve done many times before, but this time I wanted to capture the very particular sounds that I always associate with Parisian parks, the sounds of footsteps over the gravel paths.

I’ve recorded the sounds of footsteps in Parisian parks before but this time I wanted to do it slightly differently, to capture these distinctive sounds from a different perspective. I placed two small microphones (like the ones TV newsreaders wear) about six inches above the ground in the middle of a path and waited for people to walk or run past them.

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The Sounds of Spring in the Jardin du Luxembourg:

People usually associate the arrival of Spring with the natural world bursting into life, the leaves on the tress, flowers coming into bloom and the sound of birdsong. But, as a city dweller and someone who is passionately interested in our sonic environment, it is these natural sounds of the human species that signal to me that the Parisian Spring has arrived.

The sounds of pétanque being played and the occasional birdsong in the background add a sense of ‘place’ and perspective but these sounds are secondary to the sounds of the footsteps over the gravel, which for me at any rate are the dominating sounds of Parisian parks in the springtime.

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Of course, footsteps are not the only sounds to be heard in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Other sounds often become the centre of attention …

Music in the Jardin du Luxembourg:

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11
Mar

The Musée Curie Marks International Women’s Day

I WENT TO THE fascinating Musée Curie last week. To coincide with International Women’s Day the Musée Curie opened a temporary exhibition in the garden of the museum made up of photographic portraits celebrating the careers of prominent women, past and present, who worked or are currently working in the fields of science and medicine.

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A photographic portrait of Marie Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie

The Musée Curie was founded in 1934 just after the death of Marie Curie. It’s located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillon of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement and it was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934.

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Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a remarkable woman. Born in 1867 in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire, she completed her early education in Warsaw before moving to Paris in 1891 to continue her studies and to begin her scientific career.

Despite the disadvantages and indignities that went with being a woman in what was considered then (and many argue still is) a man’s world, Marie Curie’s achievements were prodigious. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice and she remains the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different sciences. She won the Physics Prize in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity (shared with her husband Pierre Curie and the physicist, Henri Becquerel) and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for the isolation of pure radium.

Her achievements included not only creating a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined) and isolating radioactive isotopes but also the discovery of two elements, polonium (which she named after her native Poland) and radium.  She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris and, under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of tumours using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I she established the first military field radiological centres and it was the excessive doses of radiation that she was exposed to while doing this work that contributed to her subsequent death.

Marie Curie was also the first woman to be interred in the Panthéon in Paris in her own right.

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Institut du Radium – Pavillon Curie

Marie Curie’s achievements were indeed prodigious but so were those of the rest of her family, between them they were awarded five Nobel Prizes.

As well as the 1903 Prize for physics, which Marie shared with her husband Pierre and the 1911 Prize for Chemistry which was hers alone, her daughter and son-in law, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie each received the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.

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From L to R – Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre Curie, was a physicist working in crystallography, magnetism and piezoelectricity when they first met but he became so interested in the work Marie was doing that he joined her and they began to work together.

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Marie and Pierre Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie – Note how Marie is on the left and Pierre is on the right but in the text below their names are reversed.

Sadly their partnership was all to short, Pierre died in a street accident in Paris in 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull. They were reunited though in 1995 when both Pierre and Marie were interred in the crypt of the Panthéon.

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Housed in Marie Curie’s former laboratory, the Musée Curie contains a permanent historical exhibition about radioactivity and its applications, notably in medicine, focusing primarily on the Curies and it displays some of the most important research apparatus used before 1940. It also contains an historical resource centre, which contains archives, photographs, and documentation on the Curies, Joliot-Curies, the Institut Curie, and the history of radioactivity and oncology.

So here is the record of my visit to the Musée Curie on International Women’s Day:

Inside the Musée Curie:

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Marie Curie’s office where she worked for 20 years

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Marie Curie’s chemistry laboratory next to her office

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An original laboratory report

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In 1921, Marie Curie was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium. US President Warren G. Harding received her at the White House to present her with the 1 gram of radium collected in the United States. This is the specially lined box that contained the precious radium handed to Marie by the US President.

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Above and below – In their time, cutting-edge research apparatus

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The Garden Exhibition:

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Institut Curie – Hôpital de Paris – Part of the Institut Curie, one of the leading medical, biological and biophysical research centres in the world.

Marie Curie’s pioneering work affects us all and today we take it for granted – from our simple luminous wristwatch to the most sophisticated cancer treatments. Yet in her lifetime and despite her huge achievements she faced enormous prejudice, not for her work, but for simply being a woman.

Marie Curie succeeded by rising above that prejudice as have all the enormously talented and successful women portrayed in the photographic exhibition in the garden of the Musée Curie.

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Musée Curie, 1, rue Pierre et Marie Curie, 75005 Paris

Open Wednesday to Saturday, from 1pm to 5pm. Admission is free.

The exhibition in the museum garden runs from 8th March to 31st October 2014.

5
Mar

The Pont de Bercy and its Sounds

THE PONT DE BERCY is the fourth of the thirty-five named bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits if you start counting from where la Seine enters Paris at its upstream end in the south east of the city.

The other day I went to explore the Pont de Bercy as part of the research for my Paris Bridges project, which you can find out more about here.

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The Pont de Bercy is an interesting bridge that now seems to have found itself on the Parisian tourist trail. It’s quite common to see tourists exploring the bridge with cameras in hand … and with good reason.

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Pont de Bercy from upstream with the floating Piscine Joséphine Baker on the left and part of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances centre right

After six months of construction work the original Pont de Bercy, then outside the Paris city limits, was opened in 1832. It was built by the engineers Ferdinand Jean Bayard de la Vingtrie and Marie Fortuné de Verges of the Bayard de la Vingtrie & de Verges Company. It was a suspension bridge 133 metres long with a central span of 44 metres and two side spans of 45 metres each and it was also a toll bridge that could only be crossed by paying a tax – one centime per pedestrian, three centimes for two-wheeled vehicles and five centimes for four wheelers.

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Pont de Bercy in 1832 – Image from Paris Illustré 1863 page 82

The amount of traffic this suspension bridge could carry was limited by its structure, which soon proved to be inadequate.

In 1861 the bridge and the area around it were incorporated into the city of Paris and it was decided to demolish the original bridge and replace it with a stronger structure. Responsibility for this new bridge fell to Edmond Jules Feline-Romany, ingénieur municipal et chef de service de la Seine dans Paris (municipal engineer and head of department of the Seine in Paris) and his deputy Paul-Emile Vaudrey.  Construction began in 1863 and the bridge was completed in 1864. This new bridge was made of stone, it was 175 meters long and 20 meters wide and it comprised five elliptical arches each 29 metres wide.

But Paris wasn’t finished with this new bridge. In 1904 the French engineer Jean Résal was engaged to widen it by 5.5 metres to accommodate Métro Line 6, the semi-circular Métro route around the southern half of the city, which was to be extended to its present day terminus at Nation. Because this part of the Métro line was (and still is) an elevated section the work involved building a viaduct with forty-one semi-circular arches to accommodate the track.

The work was completed in 1909 and Métro Line 6 began to use the viaduct the same year.

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Pont de Bercy and its new viaduct soon after it opened in 1909

It wasn’t until 1986 that further structural work was carried out on the Pont de Bercy. By then the flow of traffic had increased to the point where the bridge couldn’t cope and so, on the 20th January 1986, the Paris City Council agreed to double the width of the bridge. Work began in 1989 under the direction of the engineer Jacques Monthioux. His task was to increase the width of the bridge to forty metres while at the same time making the extension structurally identical in appearance to the existing bridge with the new piers exactly aligned with the old ones and the underside and tympana of the extension mirroring those on the existing bridge.

The new, widened, Pont de Bercy was finally opened in 1992 and it’s the bridge that we see today.

Looking at the bridge today from both the upstream and downstream sides we can see that Jacques Monthioux almost met his brief. To those not in the know it’s impossible to tell that the downstream side is the original …

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Pont de Bercy from downstream

And the upstream side is the extension, which despite its appearance, is not made of stone but of reinforced concrete. It does though have a genuine stone facing.

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Pont de Bercy from upstream

It’s only when you venture underneath the bridge that you can actually see the join …

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Pont de Bercy – with the 1864 stone bridge on the left and the modern reinforced concrete extension on the right

The work that I’m doing with my Paris Bridges project involves not only exploring the history of each of the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits but also trying to identify and capture the characteristic sounds of each bridge.

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Pont de Bercy from downstream

For anyone visiting the Pont de Bercy for the first time it’s the magnificent viaduct with its forty-one arches carrying Métro Line 6 across la Seine that is the dominating feature. My research has shown that bridges like this can have several characteristic sounds depending upon where you are listening from but if the viaduct is the dominating visual feature of the Pont de Bercy, then the sounds of the Métro passing across it must be at least one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge. So listening to and then recording the sounds of the Métro seemed like a good place to start.

I arrived at the Pont de Bercy at the nearest Métro station, Quai de la Gare, which is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s stations aériennes and from the platform I had an excellent view of the route of Métro Line 6 over the bridge.

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Métro Line 6 crossing the Pont de Bercy viaduct

To set the scene, I recorded the sounds of trains coming in and out of the station having just passed, or about to pass over the viaduct.

Pont de Bercy – Métro station Quai de la Gare:

Although these sounds are themselves interesting they only reflect the sounds of the approach to the bridge rather than the sounds of the Métro actually on the bridge.

I thought that one way to capture the sounds of the Métro on the bridge would be to take a ride across the viaduct and listen to the sounds from inside a Métro train. So, when the next train arrived, I hopped on and made the short journey from Quai de la Gare to the next station, Bercy.

Pont de Bercy – Crossing the viaduct from Quai de la Gare to Bercy:

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Descending from the Pont de Bercy to the underground Bercy Métro station

Of course, I could also record, and in fact did record, the sounds of the Métro crossing the bridge from street level but I wanted to capture something a bit extra, something that better reflected the sounds that are there but the sounds that are usually hidden from all but the most attentive listener.

It’s clear from the pictures above that any attempt to get onto the line to record the sound of the Métro as it crossed the bridge would at best result in my immediate arrest or, at worst, something far more unpleasant. An alternative plan of action was called for.

Ever mindful of the great photographer, Robert Capa’s dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough”, I began to investigate how, if I couldn’t actually get onto the line, I might at least get as close as possible. And, as always, if there’s a will, there’s a way!

Métro Line 6 leaves the Quai de la Gare station, crosses the viaduct and then descends underground before curving to the right and entering the next station, Bercy.

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Pont de Bercy viaduct sloping down to Bercy Métro station

By climbing onto a narrow ledge of the wall that separates the viaduct from the street as the Métro line begins its descent underground towards Bercy station, I was able to clamber up the ledge and by pushing my microphone through a convenient hole in the fence (I didn’t make the hole, it was already there!) I was able to capture the sounds of the trains on the slope of the viaduct. The trains passing from the left were going up the slope and those from the right were coming down.

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Pont de Bercy viaduct – An MS (mid-side) stereo microphone at work

Pont de Bercy – Métro trains passing on the slope of the viaduct:

I think this recording is probably unique. I can’t think of any other place on the Paris Métro system where it’s possible to get so close to the Métro trains other than inside a station. Had I been able to put my hand through the fence I would have been able to touch the trains closest to me coming from the left.

I recorded these sounds on a Saturday afternoon while the bean counters at the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances across the street were away from their offices enjoying their weekend. Had it been a normal working day I’m sure that one of them at least would have seen me and become very suspicious about a man climbing up a wall aiming a pointy thing at a Métro train!

So, having established that the sounds of the Métro crossing the viaduct are one of the characteristic sounds of the Pont de Bercy, does the bridge have any other characteristic sounds?

I went under the viaduct to explore.

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The Pont de Bercy viaduct sits on top of the bridge. On either side three lanes of traffic pass in both directions and beyond the traffic each side of the bridge carries a footpath. Beyond the bridge, the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances sits on one side and the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, a giant indoor sports arena and concert hall, sits on the other.

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With its forty-one stone arches along each side and the Métro track above forming a roof the view under the Pont de Bercy viaduct at street level is quite impressive.

I walked under the viaduct listening carefully to the sounds – the sounds of passing traffic of course as well as the rather muffled sounds of the Métro passing overhead contrasting nicely with the expansive sounds of the trains I’d recorded a few minutes before. And then I came upon this …

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A large puddle stretching across the two cycle lanes that run the full length of the viaduct. Right in the centre of the puddle water was dripping down from the Métro line above. This seemed to be the perfect place from which to record the sounds on the bridge.

Pont de Bercy – Sounds on the bridge:

I rather like the sound of the dripping water set as it is against the general hubbub of everything else that’s going on especially since tomorrow it most probably will have disappeared forever.

Towards the end of this sound piece you will have heard the sound of car horns and I will return to that in a moment but first, let’s explore the sounds under the bridge.

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Pont de Bercy – Under the bridge

A set of stone steps leads down from the footpath on the Pont de Bercy to the Quai de la Gare and the first stone arch of the bridge at its south-westerly end. I went down to see what sounds I could find.

Pont de Bercy – Sounds under the bridge

At first the sounds were pretty much as I’d expected, the sound of water lapping against the arch, the hum of a police boat disappearing into the distance, the sound of a jogger passing by and the buzz of the traffic on the bridge overhead. But then my ear was drawn to another sound.

Moving to the edge of the arch on the upstream side I heard the sonorous tone of a boat straining at its moorings. I love sounds like this, it almost seemed as though boat was speaking directly to me.

And then a bonus, the sound of a Métro train passing over the Pont de Bercy viaduct way above me. Since I’d begun my exploration of the Pont de Bercy by recording the sounds of the Métro it seemed fitting to end with the same sounds but from yet another perspective.

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Pont de Bercy – A boat straining at its moorings

And finally, back to those car horns. What were they all about?

Well, one of the things that I enjoy most about the work I do recording the urban soundscape of Paris is the process of observing. It’s true that on my perambulations around the city I spend much more time observing by listening than I do by looking and the delight of finding a completely unexpected sound is hard to describe. But occasionally, seeing something completely unexpected can fill me with delight too. Something like this …

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I was just finishing recording the sounds on the Pont de Bercy under the viaduct when I heard the sound of the car horns. It’s common practice in France, as in many other countries, for motorists to sound their car horns at the sight of a newly married couple and, when I turned round, there they were straight from the church having their photograph taken under the viaduct.

A rather nice way to my end my exploration of the Pont de Bercy and its sounds I thought.